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Post Presidents Club, Real Estate Firms Prepare For Undercover Journalists At Annual Cannes Jamboree

The #MeToo movement has impacted every corner of society and business. But in the U.K. the real estate industry has been a particular area of focus due to the fallout from allegations of sexual harassment at the annual dinner of the Presidents Club.

While those who attended the Presidents Club event came from many areas of business and politics, around half of the tables at the event were sponsored by property companies, and two of the charity’s three trustees were property professionals. The industry was portrayed in international media as being particularly prone to inappropriate behaviour.

And the event regularly cited as being an epicentre for this behaviour is MIPIM, the four-day conference in Cannes in the South of France attended by more than 20,000 people from across the globe each year. 

Cannes, France

“Some organisations I’ve spoken to have been briefing their teams on behaviour at MIPIM. They are anticipating that there will be a lot more journalists there, some of them undercover,” CBRE Executive Director Sue Clayton said at Bisnow London’s Women Leading Real Estate event last month. Many women have horror stories about lecherous behaviour making them uncomfortable at MIPIM. 

“I’ve lost count of the number of times at MIPIM I’ve been propositioned,” Lendlease head of offices Sherin Aminossehe said. “One consultant said, 'why don’t you go and buy some underwear for my wife?' We need to correct our attitudes, it’s just basic human decency.”

Heavy drinking in bars, at parties on yachts and in five-star hotels is the base level of MIPIM. Nothing unusual about that when it comes to conferences in any sector.

But in the past few years MIPIM has come under increased scrutiny about the fact that sex workers are common at some of the hotels which are venues for the conference, with male delegates openly procuring their services, the U.K. trade publication Estates Gazette reported in 2016.

One escort agency from the North of England, Elite Cheshire Companions, regularly sent escorts to MIPIM in the years running up to the financial crisis because it was a good place for business.

Cannes, home of Mipim

Contacted by Bisnow, the company said it had not sent a delegation to the conference for the past eight or nine years, having been warned off the event by the local police. The firm once tried to place an advert in the Estates Gazette, though the request was denied.

ZCD Architects co-founder Dinah Bornat said that rather than just being a presence at the fringes of the event, sex workers were present at official MIPIM functions.

"We were shocked to find not only that it is a very male-dominated environment, but that at the official opening party, open only to visitors with MIPIM passes, there were clearly a large group of what we would describe as prostitutes arriving later on in the evening," she told design website Dezeen.

The conference organisers responded that "under no circumstances does MIPIM register prostitutes.”

"MIPIM's top priority is to provide a safe and secure environment for all its participants to conduct their business. MIPIM has a code of conduct applicable to everyone attending the event,” MIPIM director Ronan Vaspart said in a statement, adding that communication of its policies to delegates would be increased.

MIPIM is clearly on the radar of the international press. A report by the BBC described the conference as “mired in allegations, of sexism, drunken behaviour and prostitution”. And many in the property industry expect the press to turn out this year to catch bad behaviour.

Palais des festivals, Cannes

A search of MIPIM’s delegate database does not turn up any tabloid journalists registered as attending the event — but then, they would not be very good undercover journalists if they were registered under their own name.

Some real estate firms are warning staff to be extra wary of engaging in behaviour that could in any way be interpreted as inappropriate in the face of increased scrutiny.

“When it comes to the particular issues identified by the Presidents Club I am not surprised by the amount of airtime that has generated and the fact that there is an increased spotlight on large real estate events, and hence on MIPIM,” Knight Frank Senior Partner Alistair Elliott said. “We’ve just reminded everyone that they are representing Knight Frank and our industry and that they have a responsibility to conduct themselves in a professional manner, no more or less than that.”

"Savills will attend MIPIM this year as normal, with its conference stand and café presence as well as some client events," a spokeswoman for the company said. "The firm is aware of increased media attention, as the event approaches, which it understands may impact on attendance from the wider property industry. Savills briefs its teams each year with regards to adhering to the firm’s code of conduct whilst at conferences, and will brief staff in the usual way this year."

The Royal Institute of British Architects also issued guidance to its members about their behaviour at the event.

“We are aware of reports regarding inappropriate behaviour at MIPIM in previous years,” it said. “The Riba takes this matter extremely seriously and strongly condemns any form of sexual harassment or discrimination. We have strict requirements for our members through our codes of professional conduct.”

Elliott said he thought the industry was in a period of change when it came to gender issues, but that would take time to be addressed.

“First and foremost property is going through a period of adjustment and change, and some of that revolves around behaviour,” he said. “We’ve been committed to leading the agenda on change and are trying to step that up, and I believe the industry has made improvements. But there are some structural issues in the industry that will take 10-15 years to work through.”

It is important to point out that MIPIM and real estate are not alone when it comes to these issues. Writing in the Financial Times, former property correspondent-turned-technology reporter Daniel Thomas said it is not uncommon to see sex workers at events around major global tech conferences, and that Silicon Valley has had its own issues recently regarding commonplace sexual harassment.

But real estate does have issues that need to be addressed. And in spite of Elliott’s optimism, some in the industry think change will not be forthcoming any time soon.

“Unfortunately I think it will take more than the Presidents Club for people to think that this is a professional event where they are there to network rather than trying to grope the person they’re talking to,” Aminossehe said.

MIPIM will be a litmus test of whether real estate is taking on board the message of one of the most widespread social movements of recent years.